Art Cummings is right about homelessness. "There are no easy answers...it's a complicated and challenging issue," the News-Times Editor Emeritus wrote. His comments were part of his series of Opinion pieces that, however insightful and thought-provoking, were bereft of some of the realities that make moving Loaves and Fishes from its present location to Faith Church a great idea.
Loaves and Fishes is a terrific organization that is staffed by wonderful, dedicated volunteers who work tirelessly to feed the down-and-out. Most of its clients aren't homeless but people who migrate to New Milford from other towns or cities like Danbury, where there are State services, because they've been told that the food and shelter here are better than those that are available elsewhere. Some drive. Some take the bus. Some are dropped off by the police from other local Towns, the majority of which have no services for the homeless at all. One car even has New Jersey license plates. Thus, New Milford has become an attraction because of the services that are offered here including the meals at Loaves and Fishes. That's a good thing for those truly in need but it's a bad thing because we are also a dumping-ground for another type of "homeless."
Some of the Loaves and Fishes clients are convicted criminals. Some have been arrested in New Milford. There was a payphone on the Green that provided just enough shelter to allow people to urinate there repeatedly. One such repeat offender was dubbed "The Urinator." He was caught in the act by a photographer and the activity resulted in the removal of the phone. He was a Loaves and Fishes client.
Parents and their kids have frequent problems in the Library with Loaves and Fishes clients who hang around there for shelter and bathroom use and some parents are afraid to bring their children there at all. One parent told me in graphic terms that she and her daughter couldn't use the bathroom because of a problem created by someone who was there waiting for Loaves and Fishes to open. Extra clean-up is frequently necessary for the bathroom, floors and furniture.
The Senior Center is in the same building as Loaves and Fishes. There have been incidents of theft and other crimes committed against Seniors, some of whom are now afraid to come to the Center because of the Loaves and Fishes clients. A very expensive, key-fob security system had to be installed because some clients used to hide in the upper floors of the building so that they could stay there overnight.
Police resources are already stretched to their limits yet Officers are repeatedly called to address problems in the Building, stops are part of routine car and foot patrols and sometimes Officers must be posted at the site due to fighting among clients. In the past year, there have been nine criminal complaints, ranging from minor breaches to trouble with clients, six ambulance calls and multiple parking problems.
About a half-dozen "homeless" are a repeated, heavy drain on the understaffed and overworked New Milford Community Ambulance. It's my understanding that on just one day a short time ago there were three calls to the Green about inebriated persons. Can you imagine the disaster if there had been a call at the same time for a person having a heart attack?
A lot of damage has been done over the years to the Town-owned property that houses Loaves and Fishes. In addition to the physical damage, the personnel from the Town's Maintenance Department frequently respond to maintenance issues like having to clean up feces and other body fluids in the bathroom floors and walls. There is a great deal of wear and tear on carpets and furniture. On one occasion, windows and doors were left open and pipes froze and burst.
The Bandstand requires frequent maintenance because some of the Loaves and Fishes clients pass their waiting time digging and whittling into it. Others harass strollers by panhandling or threatening. Some block access to businesses or the sidewalks just for fun. I know parents and grandparents who are afraid to walk their children and grandchildren around the Green because of these and other unfortunate behaviors. Some business owners are afraid to report their problems to the Police because they fear retribution.
You can easily imagine that this activity is very discouraging to people who visit the Downtown with the thought of opening a business. The Town is working diligently to enhance commerce and this scares it away.
When Loaves and Fishes opened its doors long ago, most of the other services that are available today -- like the food pantry run by Social Services -- didn't exist to the extent that they do today and today the homeless problem is a lot bigger than free meals offered by a soup kitchen. The Town has added personnel to Social Services and there are myriad programs at the Senior Center, Youth Agency and others to assist those truly in need.
The Town's Clergy have devoted countless resources and space in the struggle to find a resolution to the homeless problem, often to their own detriment. I hope that they will speak up soon about the problems and let us all know if they support the move from its present location. It's not very pleasant to have your wedding in one of our grand churches on the Green and have your guests meet the homeless on the way in and out.
For a very long time, the Town has been working to find a solution to the problem that works for the homeless, the taxpayers, the Downtown and local businesses and doesn't adversely affect the economic growth of the Town. Faith Church has graciously and generously volunteered to host a new facility for the homeless and to provide them with other necessary services. No one is trying to move Loaves and Fishes, they are just trying to find it a more suitable location. The Faith Church idea is a win-win for all concerned and I wholly support giving free HART bus service to needy New Milford residents to get them there. There are no easy answers.